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Gabrielle Cheney peered through the slits of her mask, picking her way carefully along the path overgrown with weeds. The courtyard of the Maison d’ Esprit was silent as a ceme- tery and twice as eerie. The moon cast a pale light over moss- blackened fountains and broken statuary. Some headless saint presided over the withered remains of a rose garden. The flowers were long gone, but the thorns were not, one branch catching at the hem of Gabrielle’s cloak.
As she bent to free herself, she was beset by the troubling sensation that had afflicted her all evening. The feeling that she was being followed. Straightening, she curled her fingers over the hilt of the sword hidden beneath her cloak and whirled around. The iron gate and stone wall were nothing more than vague outlines in the fog-bound night. But as she stared, another figure took shape, that of a tall proud warrior.
Her hand fell away from the sword and she uttered a soft choked cry. Not of fear, but more of despair because she had seen the silhouette of this man far too many times in her dreams. She took a step forward only to check the motion, knowing it would do her no good. There would be no smile to greet her, no strong arms to welcome her because he didn’t exist, this phantom man. All she would find was empty space and silence.
Ghosts left no footfalls and memories cast no shadows, except perhaps on the human heart. She watched the figure of the man evaporate into the mist as he always did. Gabrielle had never once seen his face, but she knew beyond certainty who he was.
Nicolas Remy, the captain from Navarre. Whether it was his ghost she kept seeing or only a figment of her own tormented imagination, the effect was always the same. Gabrielle’s heart constricted with sorrow and guilt.
“Oh, Remy,” she murmured. “I’ve asked your forgiveness a thousand times. What more do you want from me? Why can’t you leave me in peace?”
She knew she would never gain any answer to that question, at least not in this damp, misty courtyard. With one last glance behind her, Gabrielle turned and hastened toward the house.
The stone manor loomed ahead of her, splintered wood and a great hole where the front door should be, gaping like the jagged mouth of some fierce beast ready to devour her. But Gabrielle feared the ghosts of her own memories far more than she did the sinister aspect of the house. Besides she knew the truth behind the legends of the Maison d’Esprit far better than the superstitious Parisians who blessed themselves every time they had to pass those rusting gates.
Easing past the shattered remains of the door, she entered the house, the darkness swallowing her. The boarded-up windows blocked out what pale moonlight there was to be had. Gabrielle stripped off her mask and reached beneath her cloak for the large pouch fastened to her belt. She groped until she found the candle set in its small brass holder, along with the tinderbox she had brought. After much fumbling between flint and wick, she managed to coax the taper to light.
The tiny flame spluttered to life, casting a small circle of illumination. Gabrielle moved deeper into the room that yawned before her, the grit crunching beneath her feet. Holding up the candle, she surveyed the wreckage of the once-magnificent great hall. The bishop had done very handsomely by his mistress until the witch-hunters had come.
A beautiful high table of carved oak had been pulled from the dais and overturned, the broken remains of chairs and stools littered nearby. Tapestries had been dragged from the walls and sliced to ribbons, the musty scent of rotting wool heavy in the air. Even the iron candelabrum had been wrenched from the ceiling and left with its chain snaking around it. Everything was coated with thick cobwebs as though time had sought to weave a shroud for this house.
The witch-hunters had done their work well. Gabrielle shivered with a mingling of horror and pity, remembering the night those fiends had invaded her own home on Faire Isle. She and her sisters, Ariane and Miri, had only been saved by the intervention of the Comte de Renard, the man who eventually became Ariane’s husband.
But no such rescue had come to poor Giselle Lascelles and her daughters. How terrified those women must have been, dragged from their home, crying and shrieking to meet the worst sort of torture and death that could befall any daughter of the earth. All of them lost, save one . . .
The appearance of the great hall was calculated to make any chance intruder believe that the Maison d’Esprit was uninhabited by anyone but ghosts. Gabrielle was one of the few who knew better. Lifting her skirts, she moved to the stairs stretching upward. The small glow of her candle could not reach far enough to penetrate the upper regions of the landing, to detect whoever or whatever might be lurking there.
“Hello?” she called tentatively.
Her voice echoed, swallowed up by the vast silence of the house. “Cassandra Lascelles?” Gabrielle called more loudly.
She was met with more unnerving silence, then she thought she heard a floorboard creak. Gabrielle moistened her lips and tried again. “Cass? Are you there? It is me . . . Gabrielle Cheney. I need to talk to—”
She checked abruptly at a low rumbling sound. Staring up at the landing, she caught the shadow of movement. Her heart leapt into her throat as two baleful yellow eyes glared back at her, the rumbling escalating into a fearsome growl. The creature sprang forward, a large brownish-black mastiff with a heavy muscular body.
“Merde!” Gabrielle cried.
As it bounded down the stairs, Gabrielle scrambled back, nearly dropping her candle. Hot wax splashed over the brass holder, searing her hand. She winced with pain, but managed to keep a grip on the taper.
Retreating across the room, she stumbled up against an aumbry, the wooden shelves gouging against her spine. Her pursuer skidded to a halt a few feet away, cornering her against the cupboard. Baring cruel-looking incisors, it snarled.
“C-Cerberus. Good d-dog,” Gabrielle quavered. “Don’t you remember me?”
Apparently he did not. The mastiff issued a series of savage barks. Her younger sister could have crooned a few words to the dog, soothing him at once. But Gabrielle had never possessed Miri’s strange affinity with all four-legged creatures.
Fortunately, Gabrielle had long ago learned the weakness of this particular beast. One wary eye on the dog, she inched aside enough to set her candle down on the aumbry shelf. She groped for the pouch hidden beneath her cloak. The cursed drawstrings refused to budge or perhaps her fingers were too clumsy with nervousness. Somehow she got the purse open, and drew forth a cluster of slightly squashed red grapes.
Swallowing her fear, she croaked, “Nice Cerberus. S-sweet beastie. Look what I have for you.”
She carefully extended her arm, the handful of red grapes glistening against her palm. The dog gave a sharp bark. Gabrielle jumped and tossed the grapes wildly. The cluster hit the floor with a dull thud, causing the dog to shy back.
Cerberus crept forward again, snuffling her offering. The dog emitted a delighted whine and began greedily gulping down the fruit. Gabrielle ventured a few steps away from the wall. Cerberus would make no objection to her movement, at least until the grapes ran out.
“What have you done to my dog?” An imperious voice rang out.
Gabrielle twisted toward the sound and breathed a sigh of relief as the mastiff’s owner finally put in an appearance. Cassandra Lascelles stood poised at the top of the stairs, a tall, thin silhouette. How long she had been there, Gabrielle had no idea. She seemed to have materialized out of nowhere.
“I haven’t done anything to your precious Cerberus,” Gabrielle retorted. “Merely bribed him with a few grapes to keep him from devouring me instead.”
“Gabrielle? Is that you?” Cass asked sharply.
Clutching the banister, Cass began to descend the stairs with elaborate care. She had been blind almost from the moment of her birth. A young woman, she was not much older than Gabrielle’s own twenty-one years, although there was a hard, brittle quality about Cass that often made her seem much older.
A tattered red gown half-hung off her thin frame, baring one shoulder. The weight of her mass of gypsy-dark hair appeared too heavy for her slender neck. She had an exotic face with high slanting cheekbones and an ice-white complexion that seldom saw the light of the sun. Her sightless dark eyes were fixed and without expression, all emotion centered in her mouth, which at the moment was slashed thin with displeasure.
For one deprived of her vision, she moved with a remarkable amount of grace and stealth. It was only when she cleared the last step and let go of the banister that she faltered, stretching out one hand cautiously into the vast empty space of the room.
“Cerberus! Come,” she commanded.
The dog’s ears pricked up, but he hesitated, still searching for more grapes.
“Cerberus! Come here!”
The formidable beast whined and lowered his head, slinking guiltily over to his mistress. Cassandra groped until she seized hold of the dog’s leather collar.
“Bad dog. Heel!”
Cerberus sank even lower. As the chastened dog positioned itself beside her, Cass grumbled, “Blasted fool. Just like any other male. Ruled by your stomach.”
She softened her scolding by scratching him behind the ears. The ferocious-looking beast transformed, his eyes going limpid, his tail wagging, his massive body quivering with adoration.
It was the mistress who now seemed the more formidable of the two. One hand resting protectively on her dog’s head, Cass straightened and scowled.
“Damnation, Gabrielle Cheney. I have warned you before not to come here without first sending word through my servant. I do not like to be taken unawares. Bribe or no bribe, you are lucky Cerberus did not tear out your throat.”
“I am sorry,” Gabrielle said, taking a cautious step closer. “But I was desperate to see you and I didn’t have time to contact you through Finette. I have been here enough times before that I thought Cerberus might recognize me.”
“He is trained not to recognize anyone. Otherwise he would not be much of a protector.”
“But surely you do not need such protection from another daughter of the earth.”
“Not all daughters of the earth are to be trusted. You above anyone should know that.” Cass gave a scornful sniff. “And I hate such mincing terms as ‘wise women’ and daughters of the earth. Let us just say witches and be done with it.”
“Yes, but let us not say it too loudly.” Gabrielle replied wryly.
Cass’s rigid features melted into a reluctant smile. She bent and muttered some low command to her dog. With her hand still poised on Cerberus’s collar, she walked forward with a sure step that Gabrielle always found astonishing.
Gabrielle had seen her sister Miri accomplish some astounding feats with animals, but the degree of rapport between Cassandra and her dog, the way she had taught Cerberus to be her eyes, was nothing short of magic.
Cerberus led Cass straight over to Gabrielle. Another low command and the dog took up position, sitting beside her, eyes trained on Cass as though waiting her next order. Cass reached out boldly until she made contact with Gabrielle. Drawing her forward, she enveloped Gabrielle in a brisk hug.
“I did not mean to make you feel unwelcome, my friend,” she murmured. “But next time, let me know when you are coming.”
“I will,” Gabrielle promised. As she hugged her in turn, Gabrielle was uncomfortably aware of the thinness of Cass’s frame beneath her worn gown. She wished that she could persuade Cass to give over living like a recluse in this depressing abandoned house. Or at least allow Gabrielle to provide her with a few comforts like better food and clothing. But Gabrielle was all too familiar with Cass’s fierce pride and sense of independence.
Cass released her and stepped back, her lips quirking upward in a faintly teasing smile. “Well, to what do I owe the honor of this unexpected visit? Surely you cannot have already used up that last bottle of perfume I brewed for you. I gave you enough to bring every man at court to his knees.”